It’s more than prosthetics. More than the comeback. Brendan Fraser’s work as Charlie in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” is a profound performance for the ages. The A-list star that brought us “The Mummy” and “Encino Man” goes above and beyond the calling of an actor, showcasing the vulnerability of a broken, 600-pound man. Like Aronofsky’s resurrection of Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” (2008), Fraser rises delivers one of the best performances of the year. “The Whale” will surely land him an Oscar nomination for best actor.
The drama is a stark, dour examination of regret and addiction, wrapped into the script written by Samuel D. Hunter, who adapts his play of the same name. Distributed by A24, “The Whale” tells the story of Charlie, am obese gay man who reconnects with his estranged 17-year-old daughter Ellie (played by Sadie Sink) after leaving her and her mother for his younger male lover.
Fraser’s persona and admiration are just as affecting as his popularity with global fans. When the film premiered in Venice, as captured in a viral video shot by Variety, the actor burst into tears after receiving an enthusiastic six-minute standing ovation. With the film making its North American debut in Toronto, the 53-year-old actor’s place is solidified in the best actor Oscar race that will have him going toe-to-toe with Hugh Jackman (“The Son”) and Colin Farrell (“The Banshees of Inisherin”).
But will he be the only contender from the film?
Aronofsky, a former nominee for directing “Black Swan,” has typically delivered tough dramas for the casual movie viewer. Though his actors have achieved attention (such as Ellen Burstyn from “Requiem for a Dream”), the auteur’s bleak world-building can often be punishing to watch. His direction on “The Whale” is among his most tender. He doesn’t shame Charlie. We’d be so lucky if the Academy director’s branch would recognize his achievements.
After Sadie Sink elevated every part of the fourth season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” she’s no one trick pony. However, it may be difficult for her to break into the best supporting actress race because she could split votes with Hong Chau. As Liz, Charlie’s caretaker, the Taiwanese actress is another example of the explosion of AAPI talent in Hollywood. After missing the cut for “Downsizing” (2017), and being the best part of the independent feature “Driveways” (2019), she presents a beautifully etched woman, damaged by her upbringing, and relentless in ensuring Charlie’s survival.
An adapted screenplay nom for Hunter will depend on the overall reaction to the film. At times the movie does feel very much like a play, pressing hard in big dramatic moments between characters that likely work brilliantly onstage, but in a film, they don’t always pop. The viewer is a fly-on-the-wall in the story, and we bear witness to Charlie’s attempt at redemption and connection. If the Academy can feel that, Hunter’s nom will be assured.
Best picture will likely depend on how it stands next to a barrage of “depressing” cinema that will be up for consideration. Nominations for makeup and hairstyling might be more likely.
“The Whale” landed soundly in TIFF, and before the screening began, Aronofsky’s introduction of his cast, particularly Fraser, was met with a long, enthusiastic round applause. Seeing him tear up at Toronto as he accepted a career tribute award, he delivered a deeply moving speech on Sunday night. You can’t help but root for him. I think the Academy will too.
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